I grew up out in the country, in a house on a hill where our nearest neighbour was across endless acres of farmland. My earliest memories are of great fields of long grass waving in the wind, rippling swathes right up to the horizon, a sight that still transports me. I grew up running around on that hill, taking it for granted that I could see across the Cheshire plains to the Welsh mountains and knowing that, from certain directions, the hilltop wind could snatch the air right out of my mouth. I ran with my arms out sideways, catching the currents, and never thought about whether the ground was flat or hilly, because it was always a hill, and my legs always burned, and that was just how it was.
The earth was powdery with clay and the air smelled of cattle and hay and leaves. There were rabbits, apples, damsons and magpies. I’d follow my cat into the forest, stalking and creeping, trying not to snap twigs during his hunt, before galloping home for tea, hungry and late. Every time, I’d end up scrambling over gates and jumping over the tussocks and cowpats beside the hedge, my eyes fixed on the house as my legs churned as fast as I could make them, ignoring the sweating, burning and aching by imagining my mother’s face if she placed our home-cooked tea on the table and I wasn’t sitting there, ready and rumbling, with muck all over my arms and legs but little smudged, clean patches on my hands and face, still damp and smelling of Green Shield soap.
I’ve always found running relaxing. Unlike swimming, if you pause for a moment, you’re unlikely to sink. Unlike diving, on exertion you may run low on air but you’re unlikely to run out. Unlike walking, you can reach a fair distance without having to block out the whole day.
It’s a freedom, a dreamscape, a yogic glide over hills and ridges, a frenzied gallop over the line, a crazy plunge into forests, a terrifying skid onto mud and stones, a patient jog towards the ever-retreating horizon. It’s a quick trot to the corner shop or a three-day ramble across the moors, familiar or new. It’s a slog on sore feet, breaking toenails on burning tarmac and watching stronger, faster runners disappear over the horizon. It’s a tortuous wait for someone to catch up. It’s clinging to one another when you’re both tired. It’s admiring each other when the rain is so hard, you can barely see each other’s faces. It’s following a sexy arse*. It’s missing someone when they’re not there. It’s finding them at the end, shouting your name. It’s wondering what’s around the corner. It’s being happy to be alone. It’s wondering why the hell you put yourself through this. It’s the reassuring, steady thud of heart and feet. It’s feeling your body start to fail a long way from home. It’s a comfortable cruise up and down the dirt tracks, exploring new places, the sun warm on your back, your shadow rhythmic on the ground in front of you, and your legs feeling like they could go on forever. You can feel like a machine. Or a wolf. Or a freshly salted slug. Running has many moods.
I don’t always run because I love it. There are times when I hate it, although I love it too.
I run because I ran as a little girl, and no one ever taught me to stop.
(*A coach once advised me to find a sexy arse that’s a bit faster than me, and just try to keep up with it. Obviously I would NEVER do that, I am very respectable.)